June 23, 2011
What an emotional roller coaster it has been for the Washington Nationals today*: first they swept the visiting Seattle Mariners, concluding a triumphant 8-1 home stand and rising above .500 for the first time in over two months, and then manager Jim Riggleman announced that he was resigning from the team. WTF???
First, the good news. The memorable -- indeed, historic -- game on Tuesday night actually started off rather badly for the Nationals, as the Mariners scored in the first inning. Leadoff batter (and future Hall of Famer) Ichiro Suzuki singled up the middle to spark a two-run rally. By the middle of the fifth inning the score was 5-0, forcing Livan Hernandez out of the game, although the Nats did score once in the sixth inning. The bottom of the ninth started on a hopeful note, with the first two batters [reaching base on an error an a walk], and then Ryan Zimmerman grounded into a double play -- very uncharacteristic of him. But then the next three batters hit singles (Michael Morse's injured the pitcher in the process), and two runs scored, making it 5-3. Up to the plate stepped the big-framed catcher Wilson Ramos, who got the changeup he was waiting for and knocked the ball beyond the visitors' bullpen in left-center field, almost reaching the Red Porch restaurant. The Nationals had turned a 5-1 deficit into a 6-5 victory, stunning the Mariners into disbelief. It was, as the Washington Post's Adam Kilgore put it, "the most improbable comeback in team history."
That was an excellent way to start the series, and regain the momentum from their interrupted winning streak, but the next two games were of a much different character, being low-scoring pitchers' duels. On Wednesday, the Nats scored one run in the first inning, both teams scored a run in the fourth inning, and after that it was a tense standoff, as the Nats prevailed, 2-1. John Lannan got a much-deserved win, [evening his record at 5-5.] This afternoon, neither team scored for the first eight innings. The Nats had runners on first and second in the bottom of the seventh, and it seemed logical to put in a pinch hitter for Jason Marquis, who was already up to 94 pitches. But Marquis is much better at the plate than most pitchers, and manager Jim Riggleman let him try to bat in a run. It didn't work. In the bottom of the ninth, the Nats loaded the bases with nobody out, and the second batter after that, Laynce Nix, hit a fly ball to left field that was just far enough to get Danny Epinosa home from third base. Final score: 1-0. YES!!!
I got to thinking about the ironic conjunction of Seattle and Washington, the name of the state of which that city is a part. Similar baseball team conjunctions (albeit slightly less ironic): Houston Astros and Texas Rangers, or Tampa Bay Rays and Florida Marlins.
Wilson Ramos' titanic game-winning blast on Tuesday really got my curiousity up, and I spent hours going through my own meticulous detailed records of Washington Nationals games. (There have been 1,046 of them since April 2005.) In a few uncertain cases, I relied upon baseball-reference.com. The following table is a fairly accurate summary of all (or nearly all) the dramatic ninth-inning twists of fate Nationals have experienced, good and bad. It only includes games in which the lead changed during the ninth inning, i.e., it does not include games that were tied throughout the ninth inning.
runs in 9th
runs in 9th
|Extra innings, notes|
|9-15-05||WSH 6||NYM 5||1||0||WSH 1 in 10th|
|9-17-05||SD 8||WSH 5||0||5||SD 3 in 12th|
|5-13-06||ATL 8||WSH 5||0||4||Francouer GW GS|
|7-9-06||SD 10||WSH 9||0||4||.|
|7-26-06||WSH 4||SF 3||2||0||.|
|8-31-06||WSH 6||PHI 5||2||0||PHI 1, WSH 2 in 10th|
|9-6-06||WSH 7||STL 6||2||2||.|
|6-23-07||CLE 4||WSH 3||0||3||.|
|8-12-07||WSH 7||ARI 6||2||0||WSH 4 in 8th|
|8-24-07||COL 6||WSH 5||0||5||.|
|9-4-07||WSH 4||FLA 3||2||0||.|
|6-5-08||WSH 10||STL 9||0||2||STL 1, WSH 2 in 10th|
|5-12-09||SFG 9||WSH 7||0||3||.|
|9-30-09||WSH 7||NYM 4||5||1||Maxwell GW GS, 2 outs|
|6-1-10||HOU 8||WSH 7||2||2||.|
|8-26-10||WSH 11||STL 10||2||4||WSH 1 in 13th|
|5-11-11||WSH 7||ATL 3||2||0||WSH 4 in 11th|
|6-5-11||WSH 9||ARI 4||0||3||WSH 5 in 11th; Morse GS|
|6-21-11||WSH 6||SEA 5||5||0||Ramos 3R GW HR, 2 outs|
NOTE: Above data are subject to revision. Home teams are underlined.
The records show that, until [this week], the Nationals had never come back from a deficit of more than two runs in the ninth inning. (I exclude the Montreal Expos from the Nationals' historical records.) On the other hand, they had blown large ninth-inning leads several times. They lost after leading by five runs on Sept. 17, 2005; by four runs on August 24, 2007; and by three runs on July 9, 2006. In each of those cases, closing pitcher Chad Cordero (see below) bore much if not most of the blame. Chad was usually very good, but sometimes not.
Now, the bad news. Nats fans' spirits changed from elation to bewilderment as we learned about Jim Riggleman's sudden resignation as Nationals manager soon after the game. It appears that he had told General Manager Mike Rizzo that he wanted a meeting right away to discuss extending his tenure as Nationals manager, "or else." Rizzo said he wasn't prepared to negotiate under those conditions, and Riggleman said goodbye. As reported on MLB.com, Rizzo was "disappointed" by the timing of Riggleman's action, saying "That this is not thinking of the team first." How could such a breakdown of trust happen just when the team is playing so well? Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell writes,
Riggleman says he just "wanted to have a conversation in Chicago" on the subject. Rizzo says it was an ultimatum. It's a distinction without any difference whatsoever. The only words that mattered are, "I'm not going to Chicago unless ..."
Boswell thinks Riggleman could have nailed down a steady job with the Nats if he had just persevered for the rest of this season, getting a very likely winning record, which would be only the second time a Washington baseball team has done so since 1953. (The other was in 1969.) If he had only learned from Rizzo's own experience in having to prove his worth rather than nagging for a long-term contract. He was clearly irritated that Riggleman had been "lobbying in the media (me included) for help."
I have some sympathy for Jim Riggleman, as I think he's done a very good job for the most part, and certainly deserved a higher salary. He became interim manager in July 2009, in the wake of Manny Acta's abrupt dismissal, and the team has showed gradual, though uneven, signs of improvement. Over the past two years, however, I have sometimes wondered whether he is up to the challenge of managing the Nationals. I have been baffled by some of Riggleman's decisions, such as (one year ago) trusting too much in closing pitcher Matt Capps, who is now with the Twins. At the end of the 2010 season last year (scroll to bottom), I wrote of Riggleman:
He has a calm, patient style much like Joe Torre, who sometimes is not appreciated as much as he should be. If the Nationals don't come close to .500 next year, then it's probably time for Riggleman to go.
The moral of the story is, don't make big career or life decisions based on what you think you "deserve." Hell, almost all of us probably "deserve" more out of life than we are getting, but life ain't fair. If you really are as good at something as you think you are, and you make sure people know about it, better opportunities will come along in due course. Then you can make an ultimatum for a raise or whatever ... but it probably won't be necessary if you play your cards right.
Riggleman's announcement apparently came as a shock to the players, and it puts in jeopardy their recent hot streak, as a replacement is chosen. The Nationals are playing in Chicago against the White Sox this weekend, and Saturday's game will be broadcast on FOX.
Riggleman's hasty exit is a big contrast to the sudden resignation of Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez, on the heels of a ten-game losing streak. He was replaced by 80-year old [Jack] McKeon, who managed the Marlins when they won the World Series in 2003; see MLB.com.) McKeon becomes the first octogenarian manager since Connie Mack, of the Philadelphia Athletics.
Former Washington Nationals closing pitcher Chad Cordero announced his retirement this week, citing health and family reasons. He suffered a labrum tear in his right shoulder in 2008 and underwent surgery, but he never regained his old form. "His best season was in 2005, when he saved 47 games and posted a 1.82 ERA." That was the year he represented the Nationals at the All Star Game, along with Livan Hernandez. See MLB.com. As one of the fans who vividly remembers the big role Chad played in the glory days of 2005, when the Nationals were in first place for over a month, I thank Chad for his hard work, and wish him all the best in his retirement.
There is also some very good news to report from Omaha, and I'll have a lot more to say about that in my next blog post...
* "Today" as in when I started writing this blog post...